Real lasagna is a culinary marvel worth every minute of your time

 
By Domenica Marchetti
The Washington Post
Updated 1/3/2018 10:00 AM
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  • Abruzzese-Style Lasagna With Meat Sauce and Mini Meatballs.

    Abruzzese-Style Lasagna With Meat Sauce and Mini Meatballs. Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post

  • Lasagna Alla Bolognese.

    Lasagna Alla Bolognese. Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post

I grew up on my mom's lasagna alla Bolognese, composed of emerald green spinach noodles layered with robust ground meat sauce and creamy bechamel. To many Italian food lovers, this is the ideal against which all others are measured. But the world of lasagna is wide and diverse, and over the years I've expanded my repertoire. I have a soft spot for classic "southern Italian" lasagna, that over-the-top concoction that combines meat sauce, sausage or mini meatballs (or both), ricotta and mozzarella. I also love lasagna alla Genovese, a pared-down affair, with pesto taking the place of ragù. Some years ago, in search of a hearty vegetarian lasagna, I came up with a version that alternates roasted mushrooms, sauteed greens and cheese.

Lasagna can be traditional, contemporary, regional, seasonal, whimsical, plain or fancy. Its appeal is not in question. The issue is how to make it manageable. A recipe for from-scratch lasagna might be three recipes in one -- the pasta, the sauce and the lasagna itself. But just because it's challenging doesn't mean it's inaccessible or not worth the effort. Just break it down into steps and pace yourself:

Start with the sauce

Make your own, which will always be better than anything you buy. Making sauce is easy, but it takes time, especially if it's a long-simmered meat sauce. You can do this a couple of days ahead of assembling the lasagna and refrigerate it, or weeks ahead and store it in the freezer.

Make the pasta

Mix the dough in the food processor and use a hand-crank pasta machine or the pasta rolling attachment of your mixer to roll out the sheets. Cut the lasagna strips and let them sit out for an hour or two to partially dry, then stack them and store them in the freezer. I don't recommend leaving lasagna sheets out to dry completely, as they are prone to curling, cracking and breaking.

Is store-bought pasta an option? Marcella Hazan, the grande dame of Italian cooking, wrote that lasagna "is never, but simply never, made with anything but homemade pasta dough." I agree with her, but you may not. The answer is, sure you can use commercial pasta, but the finished lasagna won't be as delicate without those fine sheets. Option 1: Look for fresh egg pasta sheets in the refrigerated section of the supermarket. These will be closest to homemade. Option 2: Use good-quality dried lasagna sheets. Follow the manufacturer's directions for parboiling, and make fewer layers than if using your own homemade pasta. Option 3: No-boil noodles are a last resort, in my opinion. When baked, they have a flabby consistency and no flavor.

Assemble

The only onerous part of this step is the parboiling of the pasta, which has to be briefly cooked, plunged into ice water, then laid out. It's messy and tedious, and it's the only point at which I question whether I am wasting my time. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the pasta sheets -- whether fresh or store-bought -- need to be boiled at all, because they will soften and cook in the oven by absorbing sauce. It depends, of course, on how saucy your sauce is. For example, the no-cook method would not work with Genovese lasagna, which has very little liquid. Beyond that, I find that parboiling helps to set the texture and flavor of the pasta by cooking it evenly, and prevents it from becoming sticky when baked.

Once the pasta has been parboiled and all the components are laid out and ready, it's just a matter of layering them in a baking dish. The key here is not to overload; lasagna is a balance between pasta, sauce and fillings.

Freeze it

I recommend you get all the work done ahead of time and freeze the unbaked lasagna so you have only to defrost and bake it for your special occasion. Bake it until you can hear it bubbling inside, and until the top is browned, the corners are curled up and slightly crunchy.

Finally, slice it, serve it and enjoy it with your guests knowing that, yes, your effort was worth it.

• Marchetti is the author of, most recently, "Preserving Italy: Canning, Curing, Infusing, and Bottling Italian Flavors and Traditions" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

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